Authorities are tightening restrictions to stop the spread of COVID-19 after Cambodian health officials announced more than 1,200 newly confirmed cases of viral infection between Sunday and Monday.
Those figures are the highest yet in the ongoing February 20 outbreak. Since last Thursday, residents of Phnom Penh and closely linked suburb Takhmao have been in a growing state of lockdown including newly announced “red zones” of even stricter conditions. As the state prepares food assistance for residents, authorities are also beginning to use more wedding halls as treatment centers to provide some extra capacity to an already stretched healthcare system.
In the past two days, most of the newest-recorded infections were diagnosed among garment workers, as well as vendors and staff at Phnom Penh markets. Local authorities announced the closure of several major markets one-by-one, including those at Doeumkor and Neak Meas, which are both famous for distributing vegetables for 25 municipalities.
Many of the affected factory employees lived or worked at locations along the southwest edge of the city, an area that hosts many garment producers. This includes parts of Pur Senchey district, one of the main localities now included in the red zone restrictions announced Monday.
Amidst early reports of mass infections among factory staff, Prime Minister Hun Sen last week ordered all garment producers in the capital area closed for at least the two-week lockdown period. Pang Lida, deputy governor of Pur Senchey district, said there are two garment factories there where COVID-19 has been found: Fortuna International (Cambodia) Industry and D’Luxe International (Cambodia).
At Fortuna, Lida said nearly 200 workers tested positive two days ago for COVID-19 among 595 workers screened. In an April 18 release from Phnom Penh City Hall, those workers made up a major portion of the 493 total people who had been diagnosed with the virus in Phnom Penh.
Lida told CamboJA the Fortuna factory employs a total of 1,107 workers. He did not provide more details besides listing the confirmed case load.
Fortuna International Factory could not be reached for comment on Monday.
Phat Kosal, 38, is a worker at a different factory, operated by Din Han Enterprise, who stayed in a rental house in an COVID-19 outbreak area along the border line between Stung Meanchey and Pur Senchey districts. Kosal said his block of rental houses had about 10,000 workers who stayed there, all of whom were quarantined.
Kosal said food assistance promised by the government had arrived days after the April 15 announcement of the lockdown, leaving workers in a tough position.
He recalled Prime Minister Hun Sen announcing last week the government would provide 300,000 riel and 25 kg of rice and 20 cans of fish and a box of noodles for any workers who had been tested for the virus and were quarantined for 14 days.
But Kosal said the workers hadn’t received any supplies from the government from the time the lockdown began until April 18, after at least two full days had passed. During that time, Kosal said, there were many workers posting on social media or on Facebook Live because they didn’t have food to eat.
“If the authority does not go to provide gifts for us, we will face a challenge from lack of food,” he explained. “[We are unable] to eat more because we can not go outside to buy some food because we are quarantined.”
Garment workers normally receive their pay the first week of each month, but Kosal said he and other workers have not received salary from Din Han Factory. He did not have enough money to buy food through other means.
Phnom Penh Governor Khuong Sreng his administration did not have the number of workers infected at factories themselves, stating workers had been infected at their rental houses.
“Now we have locked down,” he said of the workers’ homes, mentioning an area along Veng Sreng street in Pur Senchey district’s Choam Chao 1 commune. “[And] we are going there to take samples and protect and provide food for them.”
Ath Thorn, president of Cambodian Labor Confederation said the increasing diagnosis of COVID-19 among factory workers was cause for concern. Thorn said he’d received mixed information about the government plan to provide aid to workers, saying in some cases supplies had arrived late or in insufficient amounts.
“Some workers in [quarantine] received more gifts, some workers received small gifts,” Thorn said.
Besides garment factories, city markets have emerged as another key area for COVID-19 transmission.
Pur Senchey district Governor Hem Darith said his administration temporarily suspended four markets after several vendors and people were found to be infected with COVID-19. In Choam Chao 1 commune, authorities closed Tuol Pongro, Trapaing Thloeng and Ekkareach 1 markets. In nearby Kakab 1 commune, district officials also closed the Century Plaza market.
Meanwhile, authorities announced the closure of two big markets elsewhere in Phnom Penh including Phsar Thom Toul Sangke Market in Russei Keo district and Boeng Trabek Plaza in Chamkar Mon district. Both markets are now closed for 14 days for the same reasons as the four in Pur Senchey. Authorities have called for vendors, security guards, workers and shoppers who have recently been to the markets to come in for testing.
On April 18, Russei Keo district Governor Chea Pisey specified that those who entered the now-closed market in his district between April 5-10 should get tested. He said the same for families of those who spent time there and especially those visitors who had symptoms of COVID-19, including fever and cough.
So far, Phnom Penh Municipality has ordered the closure of several major markets in the capital, including O’Russei, Doeumkor and Neak Meas, after they have been identified as infection points for the novel coronavirus.
On Monday afternoon, health officials tested vendors at the just-closed Kandal market in the city’s Daun Penh district.
City Hall spokesman Met Measpheakdey could not be reached for comment.
The Ministry of Health reported 624 new cases of COVID-19 on Monday and 618 on Sunday. For the case information released Monday, 465 of the diagnoses were in Phnom Penh, 144 cases in Preah Sihanouk and the rest in the provinces of Kampong Cham, Pursat, Svay Rieng and Takeo.
Ngy Mean Heng, director of Phnom Penh Health Department appealed to the public to follow the government measures against the outbreak.
“If we implement it well, we will be successful — so please, implement the government’s measure correctly,” Mean Heng said, though he did not provide further detail.
Since the lockdown was announced April 15, police have been deployed throughout the city at barricades to prevent people from travelling between districts. However, residents are permitted to leave their homes to buy food three times a week from shops, provided they bring along ID cards.
In the first days of lockdown, some other travel was still permitted, especially for certain classes of workers who have recognized work certificates. But over the weekend, the government issued far harsher guidelines for the lockdown, limiting companies to bringing in just 2 percent of their staff, requiring travel permits, suspending distribution of the first dose of the vaccination, banning outdoor exercise and removing a work travel exemption for staff of international NGOs.
On Monday, the Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia (GMAC) released a letter to its stakeholders explaining the mass closure of factories and beseeching them to be understanding with local producers.
“These factories are not able to operate normally,” the statement read, adding that lockdown procedures may delay production and failure to meet agreed-upon delivery schedules. “We urge all of you not to punish our members for this situation that is beyond our control.”
Truckers hauling food and other necessary items from neighboring Kandal province are still allowed access to Phnom Penh. Travel is permitted for essential workers including those in health and pharmacy services, food production, banking and telecommunications. Staff at hotels and guesthouses, gas stations, marts, restaurants and delivery services may also travel for work, though authorities have asked these service providers to reduce their activities to a minimum.
Travel for any other urgent issues is permitted with approval from local authorities, and those suffering health emergencies may seek treatment as usual.
As of Monday, health officials say 45 people have died of COVID-19 in Cambodia, all within the current outbreak. Health officials have recorded 6,470 new community infections since February 20 with a total overall case count of 7,013 cases since the start of the pandemic in early 2020.